Henry Lawson and the ‘Australian Legend’

Romanticisation of the outback and the bush has been an enduring theme in the construction of Australian nationalism. Self-reliance in the face of an inhospitable natural environment allegedly epitomises, or at least captures something central to, “the Aussie spirit”.

Think of the endless references to “a land of sweeping plains”. It intrudes into modern popular culture, which deals with issues more urban than rural, by situating them in “the outback”. Think of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max and, most recently, The Dressmaker. This is strange, given the county’s status as one of the most highly urbanised in the world and the fact that most city dwellers are more likely to holiday in another city or in Bali or Britain than in Barcaldine.

The legend of the bush goes back to the early 20th century, when the dominant industries were in agriculture – wool and beef – and mining, and when about half the population lived in rural areas. Bush ballads from this era came to be seen as the most representative writings of an Australian ethos. Communist historian Russel Ward, author of the seminal 1958 work The Australian Legend, argued of the 1880s and 1890s: “The bush ethos was romanticised, popularised and spread throughout society at this time by the new nationalist writers … like Henry Lawson, A.B. Paterson and Joseph Furphy”.

It is true that many bush poems and ballads were penned. But it wasn’t as one-sided as Ward made out. Australian society of the 1890s shared many features with any developing economy, and contained a wide array of social conditions – growing urban manufacturing, depression, intense class conflict on the waterfront and between shearers and graziers, grandeur and slums in the big cities, disruptions to family life caused by economic crisis and unemployment. These realities intersected with ideas brought from the old world of Europe and interpreted according to perceptions of life in the new to create the art and literature of the time.

I am not convinced that they are as dominated by a bush identity as is supposed. It is worth looking at how the legend was established, and why and by whom, to understand its meaning. For that let’s turn to the verse of Henry Lawson to test how well his work fits the legend to which he is said to be a contributor.

Lawson

Lawson certainly seems to place an emphasis on bush life. There is the laconic humour which has become associated with the legend. But “The Union Buries its Dead”, which is claimed to promote the legend, emphasises the itinerant, rootless nature of bush life as something to regret. There are more than 50 ballads and poems from his collected works up to 1900 which do not fit with the usual description of Lawson as a bush poet. The list illustrates how easy it would be to portray Lawson in a completely different light to that gleaned from a selective reading of his works.

Ward claimed that “the principal theme” of Lawson, along with Furphy and Paterson, is the contrast of the independence and freedom of the bushman’s life with the “drabness and meanness of life in cities”. He also noted that Australia in the 19th century was searching “for national self-consciousness and cohesion”.

Many intellectuals did strive for “national identity”. This is a feature of capitalist ideology and the self-image of intellectuals since at least the early 18th century. It is common for nationalistic intellectuals to endow “the nation” with seemingly human characteristics. But “Australia” does not seek anything – human beings do, operating in various social and political groups and classes.

In the late 1880s and 1890s, they did so in often very polarised and bitter circumstances. If those opinion makers were to find a mass audience, they had to present the ideas of “nation” in a way that connected with the experience of a broad layer of the population. This reality – class divisions in Australia combined with the ideas of nationalism from Britain and Europe – not some mystical national ethos of the bush, is reflected in Lawson’s verse. “The Australian Marseillaise”, his anthem for Australia, is about class divisions in the city – a far cry from the content of the legend. In fact, those in the workers’ movement often sang the Marseillaise at celebratory events, identifying with revolution:

Long the rich have been protected

By the walls that can’t endure;

By the walls that they erected

To divide them from the poor.

The background to his earliest poem, “A Song of the Republic”, is an indicator of nationalism taking root. Manning Clarke noted that mass meetings held in June 1887 to discuss the Queen’s jubilee ended in “an absolute chaos of uproar, confusion, faction-fighting and ruffianism”, as republicans revolted against the rich, pro-monarchy establishment. The line-up of respectable “toffs” on the royalist side – from the Naval Brigade to the Loyal Orange Institution – helped entrench the conception that Australian nationalism and anti-colonialism were closely related to socialism and working class politics. It did not imply a united, classless society.

Similarly, in “Faces in the Street” Lawson explicitly takes on the lie that Australia is the land of plenty and classless bliss:

They lie, the men who tell us for reasons of their own

That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown …

For in its heart are growing thick the filthy dens and slums,

Where human forms shall rot away in sties for swine unmeet …

I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure

Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor?

Even in the supposedly blissful bush, where all males live in mateship, Lawson takes delight in exposing the class divisions, often by humour and irony. In the “Ballad of Mabel Clare”, the heroine is downcast and ashamed on her wedding night because she has married into money:

“I am a democratic girl,

And cannot wed a swell!”

“O Love!” he cried, “but you forget

That you are most unjust;

’Twas not my fault that I was set

Within the upper crust …”

All ends well because her new husband turns out to be a rouseabout in disguise, and he is satisfied she married him for love, “and not because I’m poor”. The bush poems are not all so jovial. Women are left lonely and anxious, drudging their life away while men roam for work or go droving. There are absentee landlords and banks that control people’s lives. Many of the “swells” – the well to do – are from Britain, building on the idea of nationalism as the creed of the oppressed. But it is clear enough that class divide exists in both the city and the bush.

Ward argued: “For long a homespun folk-hero, the bushman became from 1881 the presiding deity of formal Australian literature”. He said that in 1892 Lawson, in “The Southern Scout”, wrote about the “romantic notion that the bushman of the interior was the guardian of the ‘truly Australian’ values” “in its most exaggerated form”. Yet, for Lawson, poverty and greed are not just in the slums, but also “far out beneath the gums”. The poem is a rallying cry for rebellion, a threat to all those who represent greed:

When Freedom’s marching orders reach the Natives of the Land –

Of the land we’re living in,

The Natives of the Land;

They’ll sing a rebel chorus yet and play it on a band,

For the spirit of the country moves the Natives of the Land.

References to the rebel band coming from the “western plains” do not illustrate some generalised myth of the bushman. In the context of the bitter shearers’ strike in Queensland, the reference clearly reflects a widely held feeling that the shearers were in the forefront of class struggle.

The myth making, the insistence that bush romanticisation is the heart of early poetic nationalism, prevents historians recognising that the bush ethos is of their imagination, rather than in the literature and social life of the 1890s. Historians and literary critics, legend makers all, argue that Lawson, along with others, looks to the bush as an escape from the horrors of the city. But poem after poem calls for rebellion in both the city and the bush. And they are optimistic about the possibility of success. “The Australian Marseillaise” is not just a lament about poverty and oppression:

Tyrants, grip your weapons firmer,

Grip them firmly by the helves;

For the poor begin to murmur

Loudly now among themselves …

We shall rise to prove us human,

Worthy of a human life.

It is when “Mammon Castle crashes” – not if – that there will be “right and reason”. There’s the famous threat in “Freedom on the Wallaby” that blood may stain the wattle. In “The Triumph of the People”, “the lifted hand of Labour” will end oppression. There’s “May Day in Europe” and “The Old Rebel Flag in the Rear – a May Day Song”. And “Faces in the Street”, held up as the epitome of Lawson’s rejection of city life, is not a call to emulate the bushman. His call to God to show him a solution is answered:

And lo! With shops all shuttered I beheld a city’s street,

And in the warning distance heard the tramp of many feet …

But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet

Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street.

Lawson is only one of the writers included in the bush poet genre. Nevertheless, he fits the mould uneasily. Writers such as Lawson and Dyson, Victor Daley and Bernard O’Dowd did reflect much of life as it was experienced: on one hand the poverty, hard work, often itinerant and away from their families for men in both the city and the bush, and loneliness and drudgery for women rearing children in either slums or lonely rural stations; on the other hand, the greed, moneygrubs, banks and wowsers who wanted to deny workers the carnavalesque they snatched in their few hours of leisure.

Lawson does not simply chronicle the bitter class struggles, which involved every colony and every key industry between 1890 and 1894. He champions them as the way to build a new society. The defeats meant it was many years before the working class was able to mount such a militant challenge again. This led to pessimism about the possibilities of change not just in Australia but also in Europe, where there were similar experiences. As the 1890s progress, Lawson is increasingly cynical – a sure sign of hopes dashed: class and the resulting ebbs and flows of struggle are reflected in Lawson, not a counterposing of bush life and the city.

Urban intellectuals

Why did the legend become established? Historian Graeme Davison argued:

“Sydney’s radical intellectuals’ … ideological preoccupations – secularism, republicanism, land reform and anti-Chinese feeling – (closely) match the ‘anti-clericalism’, ‘nationalism’, bush sentiment and ‘race prejudice’ which Ward has identified as the defining features of the ‘Australian’ ethos … [The legend] was not the transmission to the city of values nurtured on the bush frontier, so much as the projection onto the outback of values revered by an alienated urban intelligentsia.”

This is true. However, it restricts the explanation of the birth of the bush legend to Australian conditions. The idealisation of rural values and conditions of life by the urban intelligentsia is not specific to Australia, a fact which undermines any promotion of this ethos as the embodiment of a peculiarly Australian spirit. In the 1890s, Australian writers and artists were influenced by a European intelligentsia very much enamoured of rural life. As Leigh Astbury wrote in City Bushmen: The Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology:

“The veneration of the bushman … may be seen with some justification as a minor offshoot of a more pervasive European movement. Peasant subjects had assumed a profound moral significance for European painters of rural life in the 1880s. With the encroachment of modern industrial developments into more and more aspects of daily life, the peasant was increasingly viewed ‘as a symbol of man’s lost affinity with nature’.”

In fact, the idealisation of the bush by artists and writers means that when they attempt what they consider a “realist” representation of life, they do so as in a “camera obscura”. For instance, Astbury points out that Tom Roberts’ “Shearing the Rams” (1890), which, as the National Gallery of Victoria notes, is viewed by many as “an archetypal vision of Australian pastoral life”, is just such a representation. The painting has more to do with the striving by the Impressionists both in Europe and in Australia to universalise “man’s” relationship to nature.

Roberts’ painting is regarded as nationalist because it denotes the democratic traditions by the absence of “exertion, sweat and grime”. And the station owner “surveys the scene with a placid sense of enjoyment”. There is no hint of the bitter class antagonisms of the time. In as far as such representations depict bush life and ideals, they distort quite significantly, rather than reflect directly, social life of the time. But only up to a point: the owner is not working – he lives from the labour of those he placidly surveys.

Nationalist identities

Myth creation in the formation of national identities always involves an appeal to some sort of mythical unity or tranquillity – ideological glue to bind the real divisions that wrack society. But there are always competing ideas in society, which reflect differing political and social interests. The formation of a dominant, or official, nationalism, is also a process of downplaying or attempting to jettison the ideas and experiences that don’t fit with the unifying vision.

For example, while Henry Lawson was, through selective reading, claimed as a promoter of the allegedly peculiar Australian ethos, his mother, Louisa Lawson, could not be so easily used. Her magazine, Dawn, was the first journal produced solely by women, and also had an impact on visions of Australian society – as did the suffrage campaigns and the increasing number of women entering new industries.

The “new woman” of this time, and her practical dress, was lampooned – making her if not as prominent, then as interesting a character from the 1890s as the bushman. But because this new woman diverged from the norms of the time – the subordinate woman bringing unity to the family and thereby stability to the nation – she resisted cooption for nationalist ends. And contrary to the depiction of the nationalist legend as relentlessly male, women’s participation as working class fighters is reflected in Lawson. In “The Australian Marseillaise”, women are the ones who will lead the fight for a new and better world:

We shall rise to prove us human,

Worthy of a human life,

When our starved and maddened women

Lead our armies on to strife

In the 1890s we see the influence of nationalist ideas, socialism (in many varied and often confused forms), trade unionism, utopianism, ideas for and against women’s suffrage and equal rights. That in turn serves to emphasise the varied nature of the social and national life and the art and literature it spawned. It also highlights not so much a peculiarly Australian view of the world, but the connections with the rest of the capitalist world.

So why does the Australian legend, the idealisation of bush life, retain such currency today? Partly because, like many legends, it does contain a kernel of reality: romanticisation of the bush was a feature of sections of the art and literature of the 1890s. Banjo Paterson fits more closely Ward’s ideal of the bush poet. Even then, however, Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda” reflects the national experience of class strife at the time, not just something of the bush spirit. And while it is evident that the bush theme found popularity, capturing the imagination of urban dwellers on a large scale, the sheer size of the pastoral industry, and the fact that many workers in the cities could identify with pastoral workers’ struggles and experiences, ensured that its impact on material life and therefore the ideas of the time would be considerable.

But it is also the case that once a myth has taken root, it takes a lot to shake it. Perhaps for some it is just an innocent nod to the peculiar geography of the continent and the legacy of an economy built “on the sheep’s back”, which laid the basis for later prosperity. For others, perhaps the image of the resilient bushman, reliant on no-one but himself, serves a more explicitly ideological purpose: highlighting the virtues of individualism. Perhaps the bush ethos is so much associated with White Australia that it maintains a racial appeal that contrasts more favourably to some “cultural elites” than the diverse realities of Australian cities, where the multi-racial working class still displays instincts and practices that revolve around class solidarity. Perhaps it’s all of the above, by different measure, depending on the interpretive gaze.

Whatever the reasons for its endurance, like all exercises in the construction of nationalism, the Australian legend remains just that.